Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Khaldun

‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis and died in Cairo. The greatest Arab historian, he developed the philosophy of history and laid the foundation of sociology in his masterpiece, the Muqaddima. He was also a politician and diplomat. According to his autobiography, Al-Ta’rif bi Ibn Khaldun, his family was originally from Yemen and settled in Spain after the Arab conquest.

They played an important political role in Seville during the ninth century. Just before the fall of the city they moved to Tunis in 1323 and continued to hold important administrative posts. Here Ibn Khaldun was born and educated. In 1349 his parents died during a great plague.

After working for the court in Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun moved to Fez to serve the sultan of Morocco. But he fell into disfavor and moved to Granada, Spain, where Ibn al-Khatib, a renowned writer and statesman, was vizier. Ibn Khaldun was sent on a mission to Seville to conclude a peace treaty with Pedro I the Cruel of Castile. In Granada his enemies intrigued against him and he was forced to return to North Africa. He changed employment several times but then became weary of the dangers posed by political life.

In 1375 he spent four years in the castle Qal’at ibn Salama in Algeria, where he wrote his first draft of Muqaddima, or introduction to history, and part of the book, Kitab al-‘ibar, the best source on the history of North Africa and the Berbers. Illness and the necessity to check sources in urban centers forced him to return to Tunis. In 1382 he sailed to Egypt, settled in Cairo, and began teaching at al-Ahzar, the famous, Islamic university.

The Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Barquq, appointed him chief judge of the Maliki rite but he again had trouble with the ruler. The most significant event of his life occurred in 1400 when he accompanied the new sultan of Egypt, Faraj, to Syria at the time of the Mongol invasion. When the sultan had to return hastily to Cairo to quell a revolt, Ibn Khaldun was left behind in besieged Damascus.

He was lowered from the city wall by rope and went to meet with the Tatar conqueror, Timurlane (Tamerlane), and spent seven weeks in his camp. In spite of Ibn Khaldun’s efforts, Damascus was sacked and its great mosque was burned; however, Ibn Khaldun was given permission to return to Egypt.

As a theorist on history Ibn Khaldun identified economic, social, political, psychological, and environmental factors as key in the rise and fall of all states. He analyzed the dynamics of group relationships and demonstrated how social cohesion fortified by a religious ideology can help a group ascend to power. History is seen as a science that examines the social phenomena of human life.

It seeks causes and effects and probes the complexities of human nature. Ibn Khaldun showed that by applying scientific principles it is possible to formulate general laws and to predict trends in the future. Arnold Toynbee, the late British historian, described the Muqaddima as the greatest work of its kind.